UK Election Aftermath Could Trash the British Political System

So, the Tories did not get their overall majority. The exit poll was correct, by blind luck, as it happens. As the night wore on, you could tell that David Dimbleby and the pundits on the Beeb were genuinely weirded out by how random, and even, American, the results were. Local variations mattered, and people didn't vote as the national polls would have suggested. There were a number of seats with a healthy 8 or 10 percent swing to the Conservatives -- exactly what they needed to take No. 10 outright. But for each one of those, there were marginal seats where the Tories gained a measly 2 to 4 points on Labour, not to mention the Tory vs. Lib Dem marginals where the Tories failed to gain their top targets. 

The British electoral system is not supposed to produce highly localized results like this. Britons are effectively casting a vote for Prime Minister when they vote for their local Member of Parliament. This means that all the factors that prevent huge swings in seats in the US -- primarily, the power of incumbency, are not supposed to be huge factors in the UK. Yet seats with incumbents swung less than open seats, shredding this political theory. 

The result is a hung parliament, with the Conservatives and the Liberal Democrats now in negotiations about a coalition government. The price of Lib Dem support for a Conservative Government is likely to be a referendum on the electoral system, i.e. replacing single member seats with some form of proportional representation that would guarantee the Lib Dems the same share of seats as they received votes at the polls. 

For America's closest sibling in the family of Western Democracies to go down the failed path of proportional representation is disturbing. 

A system of single member districts with plurality voting (known as first past the post, FPTP) may not be "fair" in each and every single case, but it produces stable majorities that amplify the message voters send to the politicians at election time. 

Britons may by wringing their hands at the first hung Parliament election in 36 years, but last night's results prove that first-past-the-post worked.

Why keep FPTP? Let us count the ways.

Decisive Outcomes. Okay. This didn't totally pan out, but it almost did. The Tories got a near majority in seats on 37 percent of the vote. A simple bargain with the Liberal Democrats is now needed to form a majority, as opposed to the multi-party haggling that would be the norm under PR -- see Israel, where ultra-religious parties hold inordinate sway in coalition governments under strict PR. 

In the vast majority of elections, this also means the largest party is able to govern without the impossible task of getting to 50%. Labour won nearly two thirds of the seats on 43% of the vote in 1997. It may have been "unfair" to the Tories, but to the winner go the spoils. Like our electoral college, having certain winners with magnified majorities allow them to govern more effectively. 

No Westminster Seats for Fascists. Without a relatively high percentage threshold before a party could win seats, PR would guarantee Parliamentary seats for the racist British National Party -- about a dozen or so. They would then be considered a factor in coalition negotiations after any close election, or any election, since no one is likely to get 50%. 

PR systems regularly feature bargains with separatist, nationalist, extremist, and/or fascist parties to achieve governing majority. It's a good idea to let the voters screen the characters they send into government, and achieving a plurality in a local district seems like as good a filter as any. 

PR is Undemocratic. Under PR, you don't (usually) vote for the individual. Political parties submit rank-ordered lists of candidates, and these determine who gets elected. Voters have no opportunity to pass judgment on the individuals who compose that government. 

Despite Predictions, Third Parties Flourish in the UK. All the things political scientists say can't happen under FPTP -- viable third parties, fringe parties who win Parliamentary seats -- all happened in Britain yesterday. 

Despite Britain's winner-take-all election system, the Liberal Democrats have thrived, gradually increasing their vote share since 1992. 

The unique political culture of the UK has also produced more minor parties. Though they don't often win seats -- independents do tend to win more often than they do in the US and extreme localism in the results is becoming more the norm, especially at this election. 

In Barking, the racist British National Party threatened a strong showing, so the voters swung -- against the national tide -- to the safe incumbent Labour MP to send a message. 

In Brighton Pavilion, the Greens had a serious shot to elect its first MP, and voters flocked to that candidate in the face of Labour's collapse. 

In Buckingham, none of the major parties were on the ballot. The Speaker, who does not run under his or her party affiliation and doesn't vote on bills, is traditionally unchallenged. So you saw strong showings for minor parties and independents. 

In 2005, in Bethnall Green & Bow, the odious George Galloway won the seat having resigned from the Labour Party. This year, he retired, but his political party got 16% of the vote trying to retain the seat. 

FPTP Produces Representative Results, Though in Roundabout Ways. The common misconception is that FPTP only "works" in two-party democracies like the US where third parties don't introduce skewed seat totals. Yet the final seat breakdown in Parliament may represent true popular opinion more than you think. 

Liberal Democrat blogs have cited this chart to demonstrate the "unfairness" of the system. 

And indeed, it does look unfair. 23% of the vote for 8% of the seats. Just 6% fewer votes than Labour and less than a fifth the seats. 

But that result is not in and of itself a product of FPTP but of the unique Labour / Liberal Democrat dynamic. There are plenty of third parties around the world, usually regional ones, that outperform their national vote share in seats under FPTP. It's all about how the votes are distributed. 

In the Lib Dems' case, their electoral bases are not strong enough to provide them with a "representative" number of seats. They are a viable second in about a third of the seats, but have few unassailable bastions, in contrast to Labour, which will probably never go below 200 seats in the Commons thanks to its strongholds up North. 

It goes beyond just bad luck. I'd argue that many people vote for Lib Dems for pragmatic reasons: because Labour aren't strong enough in a seat to compete with the Tories. This is certainly the case in about 190 seats in the south and east of England where Labour have been whittled down to an average 15-20% of the vote. Do the Lib Dems really have 40% support in the South when their support elsewhere is 15%? I'd argue not really -- small regional differences have been magnified over time by tactical voting and jockeying to be the alternative to the Tories. Many of those voters are probably Labour sympathizers. 

Considering the localism of the results, voters in Great Britain seem to vote in pragmatic and often less-than-principled ways. It's less about loyalty to a party and more about grabbing the club in the bag that will produce the desired political result in your constituency. In Barking, it was beating the BNP. In other seats, it's keeping the Tory out. In most seats, it was who would help get rid of Gordon Brown. Support for parties other than the Tories and Labour can and will vary wildly based on local conditions as a result. 

If voters voted their true preferences, as they probably would under strict PR, the overall popular vote result would look a lot different than it does now. (I'd argue that the Lib Dems would be dramatically weaker.) But the overall seat pecking order would look much closer than what you see today than you'd think. 

And I say all this despite the fact that the electoral system is far more skewed in favor of Labour than the Tories. In 2005, Labour won 356 seats on 35.3% of the vote. This year, 36.1% of the vote for the Tories is only good enough for 306 seats. And the Tories beat Labour by 7 points, whereas they lost in 2005 by 3!

To a lay observer, this looks grossly unfair. However, if you consider the Lib Dems are a moderate left party that generally exists to hold the Tories in check in their strongholds, the results make perfect sense. If you allocated Lib Dem votes 2 to 1 Labour to the Tories, the Conservative vs. Labour share of seats over the last few elections would begin to make perfect sense. FPTP works in mysterious ways -- but it works! 

There's no guarantee PR will be the ultimate choice of the Liberal Democrats, and political theorists have devised ways to make it seem more palatable, for instance maintaining single member districts while adding a layer of regional districts that combine to produce deadlocked national results. Other alternatives include the Single Transferable Vote and Instant Runoff Voting which I won't explain here, except to highlight the fact IRV has been immediately repealed in nearly half the jurisdictions where it's been tried in the U.S. because after it was found that voters could cast their ballots in a way that defeated their first choice candidate. Here's an even more commonsensical reason to oppose these convoluted alternatives to FPTP: they require an advanced mathematics degree to fully understand. 

The beauty of the British system is its elegance, and its tradition of representative Parliamentary government informs our own Constitution. It would be a shame to see the basis of the system we use to elect our members of Congress be radically altered to get the Tories out of this mess. 

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Comments

What about Green

The Greens are fascists just not in a BNP way and they got a seat.  

Patrick, it's Orwellian to

Patrick, it's Orwellian to claim "PR is Undemocratic." PR expands representation to those who are locked out of it, often permanently, under archaic electoral systems such as exist in the U.S.

A non-Democrat who lives in a solid blue district in a solid blue state is permanently denied any represenation in government (unless and until some once-in-a-lifetime shift occurs). Most of the red areas, to look at an example from the other end, are nearly half blue, but, again, those people are denied representation.

This isn't accidental--the very politicians empowered by it are the ones who design the districts based on predetermined outcomes. That's why congressional districts in the U.S. look like spaghetti sauce thrown against a wall. Every state has some variation on the nonsense DeLay pulled in Texas a few years ago, where Democratic areas are carved up and placed in Republican majority districts (it was only noteworthy in the case of TX because it was done after redistricting had finished).

Those who are left unrepresented don't have a majority, of course, but they wouldn't have a majority under a PR approach, either; it's just that they wouldn't be permanently left without any voice in government. PR is an expansion of democracy; any claim that it's undemocratic is Orwellian. There are other arguments to use against PR. That isn't one of them.

What's Coming to America

What happens in Europe ultimately comes to America.